Many adults today were allowed by their parents to drink under the legal age, so long as they did it in their company and in their home rather than with friends elsewhere or with strangers. However, sometimes this still did not deter them from going out and getting drunk with their mates, so parents’ efforts may have not paid off in terms of their children’s attitudes towards alcohol and its affects. When I asked a male in his early twenties whose parents let him drink before the legal age in the UK, he said, ‘I think it’s better- it prevents rebellion,’ and this genuinely seems to be the opinion of many men and women of his age. Another man who does not drink now, as he didn’t enjoy the taste still admitted to trying it under the legal age before making his mind up on it.
I talk to an expert from Drinkaware about the negative effects you could be putting your child in danger of by being lenient with their drinking age.
Why do a lot of parents think its ok for their child to drink when they are under age as long they are with them?
Parents may think it’s less harmful for their child to drink alcohol if they can supervise the amount they are drinking. However, the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the CMO guidance states that if children drink alcohol, it should not be until at least the age of 15. In Scotland, the Chief Medical Officer’s advice is that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option.
No online guidance exists for Scotland. This came from our contacts in the Scottish Government.
Why are children under 16 more prone to violence if they have had a drink?
Children and adolescents who drink may behave and react unpredictably – they have less self-control and their brains struggle to recognise ‘warning signs’. This can lead to aggression and fights. Evidence shows their risk of being involved in violence and serious vandalism increases directly in line with alcohol consumption, which could lead to arrest and a criminal record. We know that children under 16 are 85% more likely to have been involved in violence if they have been drunk just once.
How does drinking relate to unprotected sex?
When children and adolescents drink, their judgement can be impaired and their decision-making skills are affected, which can make them more likely to take big risks – like having unprotected sex. That can lead to sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Research shows that even getting drunk just once is associated with an increased risk of teenage pregnancy, with the UK’s rates amongst the highest in Western Europe.
How should parents approach the subject of drinking with their children?
You may think because your child is not drinking yet it’s too soon to talk to them about alcohol, but it’s never too soon to start talking to your child about alcohol, and it’s never too late. Some children will experiment with alcohol early on so it’s important that parents feel confident to discuss alcohol with their child. Some parents wait until the issue of alcohol comes up rather than dealing with it proactively. The problem is that by the time it happens, it’s often too late and you’re not prepared. It really pays to have a plan, that way you can gradually introduce the subject and take the initiative.
Meaningful conversations about alcohol between parents and their children can help the child develop a sensible relationship with drink. If you make it clear that their questions are welcome and you try to answer them, they’ll keep coming back. You don’t have to cover everything at once; you’re more likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions about drinking if you have a number of chats. Think of this as part of an ongoing conversation. We know that parents are both the biggest source of alcohol, and key influences on their children’s attitudes towards it, so it’s important that they talk to children while recognising their position as role models.
If parents enjoy a drink after work, what is the best way to make their children realise that they need to wait until they are older?
As a parent, you have more influence than you might think. The truth is children do not do as we say – they do as we do. If you want to prevent your children drinking underage the first thing you should do is look at your own drinking. If you regularly drink above the lower risk guidelines (2-3 units a day for women and 3-4 units a day for men) it isn’t good for you, and is a bad example to them. It’s not just the amount either. If you reach for alcohol to calm you down when upset; to relieve stress; to celebrate success, then they may get the message that alcohol is the answer to everything. Hearing things like “What a day I need a drink!” or “Let’s get the beers in, it’s time for the footie” confirms in their minds that drinking is just what you do, regardless of occasion.
Your child is likely to come to you first for information and advice about alcohol, and you can help shape their attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol by being a role model for responsible drinking.
The Chief Medical Officer for England advises that children shouldn’t drink at all before the age of 15. It is a parent’s choice if they want to allow their child to try alcohol, for example at a special occasion. However, it should never be more than once a week - and never more than the recommended daily guidelines. But 15 is a limit, not a goal. The longer they leave it, the healthier they will be.
What other health warning comes with drinking too young?
Alcohol can harm children’s bodies while they are still developing. Health risks associated with drinking underage include the possibility of liver damage, increased risk of accident and injury, possible effect on memory function, reactions, learning ability and attention span, potential for lower educational attainment, increased risk of being involved in violence, and increased likelihood of ending up in vulnerable or dangerous situations. When children drink, their decision-making skills are affected and they’re more likely to take big risks – like having unprotected sex. That can lead to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
Research shows that underage drinkers are more likely to suffer from a range of health issues including major weight gain or weight loss, bad skin, disturbed sleep and headaches. During childhood and teenage years, the brain is still developing. Alcohol doesn’t just affect young people physically. Evidence points to alcohol misuse and mental disorders being closely related.
So perhaps you look upon your childhood with rose tinted glasses- your parents might have let you drink early in life, but think back to all those close calls, bad moves and injuries you may have sustained from drinking a little too much too soon. Could that be a result of drinking underage? Perhaps your attitude towards alcohol might be different now if you had begun drinking at the right time in your life? Perhaps you don’t know of the damage you have done to your body because its effects have not really kicked in yet? Either way maybe it’s better to follow these guidelines for your children in future as they are there for a reason.